Aimless: A Story A Day

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I completed the Story a Day for May challenge! Coming on the heels of GloPoWriMo, I knew it would be a lot, and I knew that it would take me away from my other stories for a month. But I was ready for the change and ready for the challenge.

When I saw Ny’s tweet about Story a Day for May on the first of the month, I took a deep moment to breathe before plunging in. If I was going to make the dive, I wanted to follow through. I’ve come to love that feeling of setting a commitment–and even more, I love the follow-through.

With GloPoWriMo and Story a Day, I’ve written–and posted–daily since April 1. Personally, these two months were full of challenge. We had our kitchen redone in April, and in May, I had some major dental work done and have been fighting a chronic infection connected with that.

If ever there were two common excuses not to write, “major home remodel” and “major dental work” would be up there.

But in a way that fills me with enthusiasm, inspiration, and excitement, tackling these two writing challenges in the midst of these two physical challenges offered a balance that was grounding and healing. The physical needs and demands I faced these past two months took top priority–they had to. So that meant that I needed to find a way to write anyway, while most of my energy went, first, to taking care of our home and our daily lives, and then, to taking care of my healing and wellness. Writing fit. It didn’t overtake these other needs or turn into an obsession or distraction–it fit into life.

There’s that common saying, “life happened.” And it’s often meant as an excuse: Life happened, so I didn’t write.

But life happened–life always happens, what else can it do?–and I wrote. Every day. I didn’t wait for inspiration or for the “right mood” or to see if I had extra energy. I approached writing the way I do watering the garden or practicing cello. It’s something I committed to doing daily, so I made time.

I feel confident: I can meet a commitment to daily writing even when life brings challenges and disruptions. When I was younger, I didn’t feel this way–I couldn’t write when we moved houses (which we did way too often for way too many years). I couldn’t write when ill or tired or drained or too stressed. I felt I needed stability to write. But now I see, I can write anyway.

I also discovered an approach which I really like: Think about the idea or plan–the inspiration seed or the goal–the night before. Then, spend the next day’s daydreaming time turning around the writing to be done that evening. In the summer, my days are especially full, so I have an hour or two after supper to write. And that was enough to put out a chapter, especially when the ideas had been germinating since the night before.

I took risks with this challenge. I wrote and shared my mistakes in published posts. I love the freedom that brings! It carries me back to Beginner’s Mind, and that’s what lets me continue to learn.

I also discovered that I had a story to tell and that it found its way through interconnected short pieces and prompts that didn’t always fit. But the structure of having the prompts and the notion of “stories” allowed this larger story to find its way. I don’t think this particular story would have ever come to me otherwise, and now I’m glad I told it.

My experience these past two months has been finding gifts in things that might not seem like gifts at first. Of course, there were the two challenges I’ve mentioned. But I have also lost many (most?) of my regular readers during these two months–and the freedom that brings is a huge gift! I am unhooked, and while I’ve discovered that I love commitment, I’ve also discovered I don’t like hooks. I suppose that most readers read my SimLit because of the “Sim” part of it–not the “lit” part of it. For me, writing literature has always been a solitary venture first. It’s had to be. For decades, before the Internet and blogs, I’d write alone and seldom share my work. The better pieces got shared, after revision and editing, but most work stayed private. And I like that freedom. I approached the GloPoWriMo and Story a Day with that same spirit: writing as an act of discovery, following the paths of the words, writing to write, rather than to share. I did share, for I’ve fallen in love with the open-journal aspect of blogging–but I didn’t write for the purpose of sharing. I wrote for the purpose of discovery.

I’m grateful for everyone who has read anyway! Some of you have walked with me during the poetry month and the short story month–thank you so much! I don’t know how valuable the writing has been to you as readers, but I do know that for me, in spite of what I said about loving and craving the writer’s solitude, being able to have that AND to have you smiling in the “Likes” and comments has brought a cozy and safe feeling, creating a place where I could play with words, images, and stories. Thank you.

I’m grateful, too, for those who have stepped aside so I could create in a freedom that allows for mistakes, introspection, experimentation, and the lack of self-consciousness that accompanies Beginner’s Mind. There’s something free and beautiful about not having many readers!

I hope to bring this free and independent spirit with me when I return to my other stories.

What’s next?

I plan to work regularly on Puppy Love, Sierra and S-Boys, and Lighthouse this summer. I’d also like to finish up a few old pieces. I’ve got two chapters more to write for Eight Pieces–maybe I can finish that this weekend! Drifter can probably be wrapped up this summer, if I’m able to fit in game-time, because it’s a game-driven story based on a specific Sim challenge. I think I have an ending to Houseful of Hippies–which will be followed with the sequel Houseful of Kids, which I hope to start after Seasons comes out.  I want to make a commitment to Poems for Sundays–just need to think it through a bit to make sure I’m ready to commit to writing a poem a week. I think it would be good for me, writer-wise and wellness-wise. And I want to start a new longer piece written in an approach similar to Story A Day, with only one screenshot at the beginning of each chapter, and the rest text. I like the freedom this brings to both my game-play and my writing.

I want to keep observing the ways that writing fits into and contributes to my life. Like playing Bach cello suites each day, writing each day–or nearly–helps build, open, broaden, and smooth–life’s more full, right?

Aimless: A Poem a Day

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Yesterday, I completed GloPoWriMo, the worldwide celebration of Poetry Month in April. I am guessing that writing a poem a day for thirty days doubled my lifetime output of poetry. And what did I discover?

In the past, I turned to poems, rarely shared, when emotions pressed in so closely that writing poetry offered the only possible relief. In the rain-soaked winter of my first year in college, the lines I scratched in a green, hard-backed journal (a Christmas gift from my sister) carried me through a tricky emotional state after the boy I loved dropped out of the university and, hence, my life.  I didn’t feel that any of that handful of poems were any good–though some had a rhythm I liked and one contained an image of mud-caked boots which I loved.  But writing them helped me to, eventually, smile again, and fall in love again, and again.

During this past April, I didn’t write poems for emotional relief: I wrote them as a daily exercise. Surprisingly, relief came anyway. I feel happier and more resilient, and the act of writing poems contributed to this. It was a challenging month for us in a practical matter, as we went through a kitchen remodel. And personally, in terms of life themes, I faced a few challenges, too, as I dove deep into questions about my sense of self and the role of friendship in my life.

These themes both found resolution this past month. The discoveries I made writing poetry helped, and this practice also opened me to find resolution through other material I read. Writing the poem Identity cinched something essential in me to how I see myself and others continuing through shifts in form. And somehow, though I didn’t write much about my puzzles surrounding friendships, writing poems primed me for this New York Times article,  Friendship’s Dark Side: “We Need a Common Enemy,” which has helped me understand that, while I practice friendliness and kindness universally, I tend not to do “friendship,” at least not in the way that article describes.

Poetry seems to affect my brain similarly to music–Bach, specifically. Fragments link up. Pauses gain significance. And a sense of wholeness, which, really, is what health is, seeps in.

So, I think I’ll keep up with the practice of writing poems, not daily, but, perhaps, weekly. The habit is good for my mental health.

And now that Poetry Month is over, a friend tells me that it is Short Story Month, which means A Story a Day. Dare I try? I think I will. Though I’m much more experienced in writing short fiction than poetry, I’m gifting myself leeway in what I post: expect short, rough, quick sketches, that may, or may not, fit the daily prompts. It’s an experiment to see how daily fiction writing compares to daily poetry writing.

And before I close, thank you to all who read my poems in April! You were kind and gracious readers, and I enjoyed sharing my lines with you!

Forgotten Art: Jasper – Alina 2

A reply to: A letter from Alina

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Dear Alina,

What joy to receive your letter! So you’ve come through your trial and made it out the other side.

Not many get the chance to live through the mythic experience of Orpheus and Eurydice–but then, not many of us travelled through the eras past to step into the present day. Nor do we have step-fathers returned from the grave!

And not many of us possess your bravery, Alina, for surely, it’s in finding the strength to trust even when in the grips of fear that true bravery lies.

So now your curse has been lifted, a gift from the strength of your mother, Robin, and your own brave heart.

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What is next for you and Robin?

And how does it feel to have the curse removed?

You asked what it was like to be a professor of literature.

It was my life for a very long time–over thirty years, and before that stretched a decade of preparation.

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There were things I liked, things I loved, things I tolerated, things I rejected, things I railed against, things I professed, things I chafed at, things I adored.

In that way, it was much like any job, I suppose.

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The finest moments centered around the catching-hold of an idea. One year, we all went mad for Thoreau; I nearly lost eight students to “The Walden Effect.”

When a certain type of sophomore first reads Walden, something dangerous can spark. Once it does, this bureaucratic life that muffles our everyday becomes intolerable. And when that happens, the susceptible sophomore turns to me with a bright eye and declares, “I must do something meaningful.” I came to recognize the signs.

“Fine, yes, you will do something meaningful, but AFTER writing this term paper.”

“No! I need to experience life directly!”

Before I lost too many students, I tossed in a lecture on Thoreau’s life: He was a student before he dropped out. Then he ran a pencil factory. He taught. He found meaning in the quiet and loud tasks of a single day: And then he dropped out. But even then, he didn’t really drop out.

His cabin was short walk from Emerson’s home, and nearly daily, Thoreau’s old crowd dropped by to visit, to read, to play chess, to wonder at his quaint life. While all along, Thoreau was studying, reading, writing. He lived deliberately, yes–But one needn’t drop out to live deliberately.

I suppose my quest as a literature professor was to craft my own deliberate life. Literature forges my path through beauty.

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Perhaps that old aphorism applies: You can take the professor out of the university, but you can’t take the university out of the professor.

My academic eye has become native by now.

My greatest joy still lies in the alchemy of spirit and word. The other day, a friend dropped by.

‘You know I’ll be thanking you forever,” she said.

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“For what?” I asked.

“T.S. Eliot,” she said.

Four Quartets?” I asked. I recommended it the last time we spoke.

“‘At the still point of the turning world,'” she quoted. “‘Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards…'”

She found Burnt Norton online and we recited together:

“at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

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My friend laughed. “To think I’ve lived this long without knowing these words!”

“Oh, but you have known them,” I replied. For that is the mystery of literature: that is what makes the sophomore rebel when first reading Thoreau, that’s what makes the old one rejoice when reading Eliot. It’s the words we’ve known and lived and heard echoing through our souls. Only it has taken these writers to express it in words that we can share with another, and even with our own inward heart.

Alina, my bookworm friend, may you also know many happy moments hearing your soul’s whispers echoed in the literature you read!

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Wishing love to you, Robin, and whatever whispers may be stirring now that your curse has been lifted!

Your steadfast correspondent,

Jasper

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Shift 32: Stories

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Four other kids agreed to be profiled as part of the YOTO fund-raising campaign. After I talked with them, when I was composing their stories in my mind, I felt so drained. What a crummy world that these things could happen to people. Drug addiction. Verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Neglect. Power and control cycles. Wars. Car bombs. What kind of world is this? How did we even survive?

But then I realized, everybody’s got heartache. Or if they don’t yet, they will. That’s part of life. No escaping it. Even if you’ve got the safest, cushiest life, somebody you love is gonna die someday, and your cushy life will change. Or maybe even you’ll die before you lose anyone you love. And that’s tragic, too.

So in a way, our specific heartaches don’t matter. They’re just more of the same. The stuff of life.

But what we decide to do in spite of heartache and hardship, that matters. And each of us has faced our challenges and decided to do something.

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That’s what I want to share.

Here’s what I wrote for the overview to our profiles:

If I told you our stories, you’d cry. But tears are cheap. Motivation, Dedication, Inspiration: That’s what costs more. And that’s what YOTO provides by giving us guidance, security, and a place to stay. I won’t tell you our sob stories. Instead, I’ll tell you our dreams and goals. And you can decide if you want to help kids like us find the motivation, dedication, and inspiration they need to achieve their own dreams. Doing this isn’t cheap. But it’s real. It lasts. And it makes a difference.

I was a little surprised that Karim volunteered to be the first one to be interviewed. He’s hardly ever even talked to me. He’s always hanging out with the cool kids, acting cool.

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About five years ago, after his family was killed, he left Syria to become a refugee in Jordan. He was one of the lucky ones who got sent to Canada, where a cousin lived. But the cousin was no good, so he fled and eventually made his way down here.

Britney’s been working with him to get papers and official refugee status. She knows people in all the local aid organizations.

“I have faith in Britney,” he told me. “She has taken me to meet all the people who need to be met, in all the offices. We will get the papers, I know this.”

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When I asked him what he wanted to do in the future, he said, “Are you kidding me? I want to become a civil engineer. We have a world that needs rebuilding. I want to be one who helps with that job.”

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I was shocked when Donnie agreed to have me write his profile. At first he said, no way. He’s on the football and wrestling teams at Oasis Springs High, and he’s one of the popular kids.

“I don’t want them knowing I live here,” he said.

I told him I could understand that. I know what Oasis Springs kids are like. I told him how they treated me when I went to Oasis Springs High, and how I swore never to go back there.

Donnie was quiet for a moment.

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And then he went all chivalrous.

“You know what? Screw them,” he said. “You interview me. I want to show them that just because you don’t have a home, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a person. My popularity score might take a few hits, but screw it. Who cares?”

It took us a few minutes to get past the bashful feelings.

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But then, Donnie really opened up. It’s the common story: his dad died when he was a little kid. His mom remarried. The guy she remarried is a jerk, and life on his own seemed better than what was happening at home.

I know what it’s like when you’d rather be on your own than living with somebody like that.

“I want to go to college,” he told me. “When I was at home, I stopped believing I could do anything. I just believed everything he told me. But Aadhya’s been talking to me. I think she’s maybe getting through. I mean, all sorts of kids go to college. Why not me?”

He’s been working with Clara Bjergsen. She’s an admissions officer at University of Windenburg, and she volunteers here to help us navigate the college admissions process.

Clara says Donnie should be able to get an athletic scholarship–wrestling, not football.

“I want to be a cop,” he says. “Either that or a history teacher. Maybe I could teach at a high school and coach the wrestling team.”

When I asked him why history, he said, “I like knowing all the things that happened before. Most of what we gripe about either already happened, and people somehow figured it out and survived, or it’s something that stems from what happened before. Either way, knowing the past just helps us do better now.”

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I knew Marquis would want to talk with me for the stories. He’s always been really open about how his mom used crack cocaine, even when she was pregnant with him, and how she’s been in and out of rehab.

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“What would you want to tell people?” I asked him.

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He thought for a minute.

“You can say anything!” I said. At that point, I hadn’t yet figured out how I’d be writing the stories. “Anything at all you want people to know about you, or other kids in your situation, or any of us here.”

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He said, “I’ve had enough of labels. You know when I was in grade school they called me a crack baby? I went home and asked my aunt what that meant, because my mom wasn’t there at the time. When she told me, something sort of died inside. I felt how I’d be different always. Somehow, I had this idea that I’d grow up normal, and that what I was experiencing then was just a phase. But that day, when my aunt told me what that meant, I thought it meant I was broken.”

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But then Marquis started chuckling. “I found out later they were wrong!”

He was tested by a psychologist later that year, but not because he was stupid or damaged, because he was smart.

“I got into the Gifted program,” he said. “It was awesome.”

He did research later and found out that the whole idea that crack babies could never be normal was bogus. Turns out that the biggest thing many kids suffer when their moms are users is neglect. That’s bad enough, for sure, and that’s what eventually ended up causing Marquis to head out on his own. But it’s not brain damage.

“I don’t know what I want to be,” Marquis said. “Lately, I’ve just been into being.”

I recognized Aadhya’s influence.

“But I’m going to college. I’ll take all the classes, and then I’ll decide.”

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Nadja didn’t want to talk about her past.

“It will get people in trouble,” she said.

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“I have seen so much. So many bad things. If I even say anything, people I love will be punished. It’s enough that I’m here, across the border, where I am relatively safe.”

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She shifted the conversation to the future. Maybe she’s the one who planted the idea of focusing on our dreams and goals, rather than on the dangers and hardships of our pasts.

When I first met Nadja, she wanted to be doctor. But she’s changed her plans this year.

“I want to go to University of San Myshuno,” she said, “because they have the best social justice program. I’m going to become an attorney, and then I’m going to work for the rights of people who have no one to stand up for them.”

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When I wrote up the profiles, I began to see an amazing pattern. We aren’t broken kids. We’re kids who’ve had tough things happen. But we’ve healed–or we’re healing. And we’re getting hope. And, each of us, we’re thinking now of ways we can do something to make the world better for somebody, and not just for ourselves, but for somebody else.

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This is what I call “The Gift of YOTO.” And suddenly, instead of feeling sorry that I ended up here, I am seeing it as a privilege. Because of what’s happened to each of us, the world’s gonna be a better place. It’s a hell of a price to have paid–but YOTO shows me that we’re strong enough to pay it, and then to pay it forward.

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Shift 31: Work

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When I look around YOTO, I feel so grateful. I can take a bath anytime I want.

I’ve got a kitchen. The fridge is stocked with food.

I’ve got a warm bathrobe I can wear, even on Sunday afternoon. And even though the place is home to eight of us kids, and we’ve always got counselors on-duty, I can still find a quiet place to sit and be alone.

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I want to give back. It’s been about four months, not counting summer when I was with Ted, and I’ve been taking the whole time.

I’m ready to give.

I told Aadhya that I wanted to get a job so I could start paying my room and board here.

She smiled. But I could see it wasn’t a “yes” smile.

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“Jazz,” she said, “It doesn’t work that way. We’re here for you, and the other kids. That’s our dharma. Your dharma is to continue your journey with your studies and your sports so that you can go to college. That’s your job right now.”

I told her I wanted to do more. She said I already do so much: cleaning, repairing stuff, making meals.

That’s nothing. That’s the business of life.

I’m a teenager. I’ve got loads of energy. I know I can do my studies, run track, help around here, and have a weekend job.

Aadhya kept saying no.

I kept the focus. I did all my regular homework and extra credit. I continued to train for track, which would be starting after winter break.

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I even helped out Nadja, tutoring her in Western Civ.

“I could give a rat’s a** about Aristotle’s rhetoric!” she said. “The Greeks destroyed my people!”

But we persisted and she learned it anyway.

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I stepped up when it came to helping out around YOTO. I started making rounds each morning, before the other kids got up, to see what needed doing. I like cleaning the place. It helps me remember how lucky I am to have a place to clean.

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One day, Aadhya said, “Are you still interested in a job?”

Of course I was.

“It’s not outside. It’s with us. And it doesn’t pay, but it helps a lot.”

That was OK with me, because if it paid, I’d give all the money back to YOTO anyway.

“I’m not interested in working for the money,” I explained. “It’s so I’m not a free-loader.”

My heart sort of broke when I said that. I never ever thought in my life that I would be a free-loader. I always thought I would always pay my way in life, giving back, not taking.

Aadhya got real quiet and looked at me.

“Are you ashamed?” she asked.

I didn’t really answer. But I guess that was my answer.

She went on for a long time about everything I do to contribute, and I sort of closed my ears when she started talking about how I didn’t do any of this myself, and how I should be proud of myself, and it’s not my fault. I closed my ears because I know that. I don’t know that it does all that good to think about it. I can think about it when I’m by myself, because then I won’t cry. Or if I do, I’m alone, so it doesn’t matter if I cry a little bit. I’ll stop after ten tears.

But when Aadhya was talking, I knew that if I started crying I would cry for a really long time, and I am not ready to do that. So I closed my ears. And then she stopped talking and looked at me.

“So I have a proposition to make,” she said at last. “Do you think you can help us out?”

The proposition was this: YOTO wants to do a big year-end fund-raising campaign, and their social media/communications director says that the best ways to raise money is through telling the stories of the kids that live here.

She wanted to know would I help. I thought she wanted me to talk to the communications person, who would write my story. But she meant for me to write it. And not only my story, but the stories of all the kids here.

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So that’s what I’m doing. It’s my new job, volunteer, for YOTO. And, if it helps to raise money for YOTO, then it pays back big-time.

I’ve decided I will start with my story. That will give me practice in writing. And then, after that, I’ll talk to Marquis and Nadja. We don’t have to use our names, but Aadhya wants us to have pictures to accompany each story.

“You’re all so damn good-looking,” she said. “Nobody can keep their preconceptions about youth without permanent residences when they look at your beautiful faces.”

I thought a lot about that: how looking in a face breaks down the preconceptions. That’s where a soul shines, and it’s hard to keep a prejudice when you can see a soul.

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